Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cancer patient's mom decries access to files

Case highlights hole in privacy law

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A young girl battling cancer has become an unwilling participant in a case that highlights a weakness in the province's privacy laws and the ease with which health-care workers can access a patient's medical records when they have no business doing so.

The case was made public Wednesday with the release of a report by acting ombudsman Mel Holley, whose office was called in last year when the girl's mother complained about the unauthorized access to her daughter's electronic medical records at CancerCare Manitoba.

  • WHAT IS IT? The province's Personal Health Information Act (PHIA) was enacted in 1997 to protect a person's health records and medical information from being publicly disclosed.
  • WHAT'S HAPPENED? The move from paper to computer records increases the likelihood that health-care workers with no connection to a particular case can access a patient's records with a few strokes on a keyboard.
  • THE PROBLEM? PHIA only penalizes, through a fine up to $50,000, the disclosure of health information. It does not penalize the unauthorized access or "snooping" through it on a computer screen. The province's acting ombudsman says the government must fix it. Health Minister Theresa Oswald says the province is doing just that.
  • The woman said she took the action to protect her daughter but to also highlight how easy it is for health-care workers to "snoop" through anybody's personal medical records on a computer.

    "I think it's a big concern because there is so much information that is stored in these systems," she said. "There has to be more serious consequences for doing it. They have to show it will not be tolerated. I would think there should be a fine or termination. It is serious medical information that they're dealing with."

    But Holley said that can't happen until the province plugs a loophole in the Personal Health Information Act (PHIA).

    Holley said there is no penalty in the act for the unauthorized access of private electronic health records. A penalty, a fine up to $50,000, can only be applied when there is a wilful disclosure of a person's private health information.

    "I'm hoping they will look at it and put something in place so that we don't have a gap in the deterrence," Holley said. "It should be plugged."

    He also said "snooping" is an evolving privacy issue that's arisen due to curiosity and the ease of access of health-care workers to electronic medical records.

    "With electronic health records you can now have 1,000 people who can, if they choose for personal or other non-professional reasons, go in and look at your files," Holley said. "It's not just doctor, nurse and receptionist that have access to this."

    The Opposition Progressive Conservatives raised the ombudsman's report during a legislative committee meeting on Wednesday.

    Health Minister Theresa Oswald told MLAs the NDP government accepts Holley's advice and vowed her department will address the matter "straight away."

    Oswald also said "patient privacy must be paramount" as information technology evolves.

    The child's mother also said computer access logs show a second health-care worker, not at CancerCare and not connected to her daughter's treatment, has also read her daughter's electronic file. She made a second complaint to the ombudsman's office. Holley said his office is reviewing that complaint.

    "Nobody should be doing it," she said. "It's not just about our daughter. The fact is it can happen and people don't know it's happening. When you're dealing with sensitive information you need to take it seriously."

    bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

    Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2012 A6

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    Updated on Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 8:29 AM CDT: adds fact box

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